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Shellbooks – improving literacy through community stories

World Vision
22 April 2015 by Natasha Tamplin
Shellbooks – improving literacy through community stories

Children read from Shellbooks, reading material made by their local community to help improve literacy.

As a new mum of 21 month old Ryan, I treasure the moments when he scoots into my lap for me to read a story. The struggle to keep him engaged for the full length of the book is getting easier by the day, but I can’t wait until he is old enough to understand what is written and even one day practice reading the words back to me. Perhaps one day I can read him a unique story made from the very community that our sponsored child would come from – to see the photos and simple text they put together using the ‘Shell book’ process, often used in World Vision’s area development programs.

World Vision's Natasha Tamplin reads a Shellbook from Uganda to her son Ryan.

World Vision’s Natasha Tamplin reads a Shellbook from Uganda to her son Ryan.

Shellbooks are locally-adapted reading materials created by community members with the help of local World Vision staff. These Shellbooks are more than just books – they are an avenue to empower communities. They inspire parents to get involved in their education of their children, provide a form for oral stories to be expressed in pictures and text, and unite community members in the exchange of knowledge as the Shellbooks are created. They ensure that relevant resource material gets to those who need it most – and who usually cannot access it.

There is a global learning crisis going on, with 250 million children unable to read or write by the time they reach Grade Four. This struggle with illiteracy is typical in the areas where World Vision chooses to work. Even when classrooms are built, reading and writing skills are often weak due to limited access to meaningful reading materials and opportunities to practice.

A 2010 UNESCO Global Monitoring Report found that in Mali, Pakistan and Peru, more than 70% of children in primary grades cannot read at grade level. The same study found, in sub-Saharan Africa, a child with five years of education has a 40% chance of being illiterate.

In Uganda, the Pader Education Project, funded by Australian Aid, is using Shellbooks in their programming to help children understand and relate to what they read. One such story, ‘Unity is Strength’ tells of a community in which the parents realised their teachers needed safe houses to live in close to the school to prevent them from coming late to school and missing classes. They organised themselves to work together, with local government and with World Vision to combine materials and efforts to build these houses. Such a story demonstrates to the children that read it the power in uniting together and to value their education. The local stories are popular because readers see pictures of fellow community members, and are reading about their own communities.

 An image from the Shellbook 'Unity is Strength' - parents celebrate a new teachers house that has been built in their community.

An image from the Shellbook ‘Unity is Strength’ – parents celebrate a new teachers house that has been built in their community.

“The entire process and products of [Shellbooks] has given community new hope to value the informal education materials,” says Chris Komakech, the Pader Project Manager. Its not just teachers and children that benefit though – parents likewise feel more involved and committed to their children’s education.

“In the process of writing these shell books, many parents became friendly among themselves and it has resulted to very strong unity among schools and the surrounding communities… It has built the capacity of few parents who are very actively participating in these stories writing, ” said one School Management Committee member.

So how are Shellbooks created?

World Vision encourages community members to participate in creating the Shellbook reading resources by following a simple process.

  1. Training: Capable and committed School Management Committee (SMC) members are selected and trained in the Shellbook process. These committee members then roll out the training to other community members.
  2. Community Meeting and Sharing of Stories: These SMC members then meet the community at a central point in the community where members share stories to be written. Community members then select the best story.
  3. Editing and Approval: Stories are written in paper and handed over to World Vision staff who type the story in the Shellbook Software. The story is then reviewed by the community before pictures are taken and inserted into the story to make the local material more reader friendly. The books are printed as drafts and handed over to the local Language Board to ensure that spelling, grammar and phrasing are all correct. A final review from the School Management Committee ensures that the editing process hasn’t impacted the story they wanted to tell.
  4. Printing: Finally the books are printed and copies are provided to schools who then share them with community volunteers. They use the books in villages to train children and other community members who are interested in learning how to read.
Community members in Uganda work together to produce a Shellbook, which will be used to improve children's literacy.

Community members in Uganda work together to produce a Shellbook, which will be used to improve children’s literacy.

Overall, this is a process that focuses on training and empowering community members and using local knowledge. That way, when the project is done, community members have the skills and resources to continue improving literacy with materials they themselves have created. It’s great that children can read stories about their own culture and community – hopefully one day Australians will be able to access the books, to help their own children understand what life is like in another part of the world.

Natasha Tamplin Natasha Tamplin

Natasha Tamplin is a Portfolio Manager in World Vision Australia’s Asia team managing Nepal, Myanmar and Laos portfolios. She has a passion for Social Accountability (CV&A) and sustainable community development that empowers communities and instils ownership.


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